Cover of the first edition of the Sydney Morni...

Image via Wikipedia

Here is an extract from the opening keynote to the Walkley Media Conference in Sydney, 9 August 2010,  from Sydney Morning Herald editor Peter Fray:

The inverted pyramid is the basis of our reporting structure in news. The all embracing lead (25 words or less), the next par supporting the lead, the next that broadens or explains, the next which introduces some new, a quote or two etc.

The whole method is an efficient, economical and universal way of answering the questions who, what, where, when, how and why. The five Ws or if you report in Melbourne, the six: what team?

This is a system perfectly designed to tell us about Yesterday, about what happened yesterday. But what if we cared less about yesterday – because we don’t want to bore people with stuff they may have already read – and more about today and tomorrow. What if we were primarily concerned with the WHY and the WHAT Next? Because the web or its current model is going to struggle to tell you the why and the what next – because it deals with the instant, the breaking news and views.

In this respect, the web is more akin to radio than print. My point here is that in print we need to aim for greater authority, thought – and, hopefully, engagement. And we shouldn’t be hung up on the 5-600 word page lead as the most efficient way to get it down.

The readers want more – and less. Yes, we do tend to overwrite. We do have a tendency to equate length with understanding and quality, or, conversely, to think if it’s long it must be good. That’s not to say if it’s short its always better. But we have to be smart and judicious – and innovative.

Here are a couple of examples:

In the first, David Marr, a national treasure, is writing about the whole that opened up in the road Bellevue Hill. Under the headline, Sand castles – the upper crust hits rick bottom, he writes:

 “As catastrophes go, the great Bellevue Hill landslip was extremely civilised. The only reported casualties are two cars, a lamp post and a tree.’’

It is only 420 words long, and the word yesterday doesn’t appear until par 16. Now, you might be thinking, that’s all well and good, but I’m not David Marr. To which I’d reply thank God. No, no, I mean of course you are not but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t aspire to be your own David Marr.

The artistry and craft in that piece is not the stuff of Walkleys. But it is a wonderful example of what we all should be doing – telling relevant stories  and not wasting a single word.

There are many ways of telling stories. Here’s another recent favourite. This is a strip cartoon telling the great yarn about the German tourist who was mugged in Sydney – only to be rescued by a group of local guys practicing to be Ninjas.  We ran it on page three of the news book. This was a convenient way around the problem we had – the tourist didn’t wish to be photographed. We could have used a picture of the Ninjas as the main image, but thought it worth a try to tell the story in the way it unfolded, as a carton strip.

Now, this was a great little story. It was given plenty of radio and TV time – and dominated the web that and the following day. It may have done so with or without the strip, but my guess is the strip caught the readers’ eye and told the story in a simple, effective and accessible way. It was, as the former CEO of Fairfax Fred Hilmer would like to say, an effective surprise.

My point here is that some readers — many, not all – are open to having information delivered in new ways, provided in doing so we don’t destroy the quality and reliability of that information.

I have long thought we have to do more – more with every story – than simply headline, picture, words. How boring is that?  How uninviting? How taking a lend of our readers valuable time?

By this I don’t mean let’s over engineer or over design each yarn. A few re-designs ago, Herald reporters were asked to write a few pars with each story, known as the story so far: a precise of the key points. It did not take long for such requests to either fall by the wayside (forgotten by sub or reporter alike) or greeted with outright derision. That to me is a challenge to editorial management: changing the culture requires constant attention and constant leadership.

But we have to do all we can to give ourselves a chance to be read.

So, let’s tell stories using every weapon we have, be that a picture, some great words, a graphic, a marriage of the graphic with the picture, a marriage of the headline with the graphic, just a graphic, just a picture or an illustration, a cartoon, or white space – or some black space.

You might think this is just design trickery. I agree that all the design in the world will not save us if we don’t have great images and great words to work with, and quality journalists to provide them.

So to that end, I ask – I implore – you to think about every word you use.

Here is one of my favourite pieces of writing from last year, Jock Cheetham’s four part narrative on the murder of Isaac Dinsdale in Woolloomooloo. It deserved to win the Walkley it was nominated for.

I loved these pieces for two reasons: one, it was real crime, a genre which I’d like to see a lot more of because it so often showcases the best of journalism.

The other is the way it was told, in serial form, pushed the reader into the next day, into the next chapter. We often talk about making ‘sticky’ stories. This was pure adhesive: you had to buy the next day to find out what happened. What I also liked about this is it showed initiative on Jock’s part. Reporting is not a passive occupation.  It should be at every level a creative pursuit. Neither for that matter is editing.

We are all on a journey and we must all learn to adapt and broaden our skills. Which brings me back to online.

Some of the things I wish to ban from the paper still have plenty of relevance to the web. Not the word yesterday, but the inverted pyramid or any other method that delivers information rapidly and accurately.

In the future, I have no doubt that some of the most successful journalists – no mater what their jobs – will be able to satisfy the needs of online for fast turnaround news, commentary, video AND the paper’s desire to give readers more: more unique quality stuff.  And even if we stopped printing, we’d still need to produce the highest quality content – across all platforms, meeting all needs and markets. 

What we need to find out is how to pay for the making of that content.

I know most of us want to be part of online. Many of us already are. Many of us already understand the huge potential that rests in online and how it can assist the printed version and vice versa.

For instance, there is a great future in data based journalism: in harnessing the power of online to unearth trends and patterns, to cut and paste information that both illuminates facts and stories and delivers relevant information to readers.

I’ve been asked a few times recently to describe my ideal reporter. It’s easy: he is Rambo; she is Rambette. Why? It is obvious isn’t it?

Both Rambette and Rambo are clearly multi-platform types able to use a variety of tools to maximum effect. But there is also something else that appeals: they know how to catch and kill their own. They can go out in the forest or desert and come back a bit soiled but successful, having done all the work themselves. They can in other words go out, take risks and tell their own stories – in their own unique ways.

I think Rambo might be on to something here.

At least he’s not going to die wondering.

I don’t intend to do so either.

Source: Fray,  Peter, SMH editor, “Who moved my pyramid?“, Media Conference speech, 9 August 2010.

Advertisements